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7 min read

    7 min read

    Harry here.  It seems like there’s no shortage of scary stories in the news about safety issues for Uber drivers.  Today, RSG senior contributor John Ince takes a look at just how safe being a rideshare driver can be and what drivers should do to be prepared just in case.

    By now most drivers have heard about the Taco Bell executive who attacked his Uber driver in a now infamous Youtube clip.  But in case you missed that one, the Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Association (TLPA) has created the website, Who’s Driving You?  

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    It’s obviously biased, but it paints a pretty damaging image of safety with a long list of frightening incidents.  Whenever Uber or Lyft are pressed on the safety issue, they reflexively respond with a refrain that goes something like, the number of such incidents is very small in comparison to the millions of rides given every day. 

    But as the ridesharing platforms grow, they’re also expanding into socioeconomic sectors and regions that are prone to higher crime rates.  In addition, Uber’s decision to test out cash payments in Colorado has raised concerns among many drivers.  Due to all of this, many drivers rightly wonder whether this gig is really as safe as Uber and Lyft want us to think it is.

    What do you think about the safety of Uber and Lyft? Has driving become more or less safe? What concerns you (as a driver and/or as a passenger)?

    What Does the Data Tell Us?

    Taxi driving has always been dangerous. According to the OSHA Data Sheet, “the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) data indicates that annual homicide rates for taxi drivers (and chauffeurs) from 1998 to 2007 ranged from 9 per 100,000 workers, to 19. During that period the rate for all workers was at or below 0.5 per 100,000 workers. In other words, taxi drivers’ homicide rates were between 21 and 33 times higher than the national average for all workers.”

    Presumably, rideshare drivers are less susceptible to robbery or violence because there is no cash transaction involved – at least until Uber started experimenting with it in Colorado Springs (as well as in various markets overseas.)  Driver and passenger safety is one of the most closely guarded secrets of the ridesharing industry. Neither Uber nor Lyft publicly release any information about safety incidents.  My take is that the sensationalized stories get enormous publicity because such incidents are rare.

    The much greater threat in my opinion, though, is the potential for getting into an accident, especially with all the complexities UberPOOL and Lyft Line add to the ride.   While the driver is trying to navigate often unfamiliar and complex downtown areas, they also trying to engage the passenger in conversation and sometimes act as a social director on pooled rides. Driver’s attention is divided among screens, passengers and the road – not a good formula for safety.  This potential for distraction greatly magnifies the normal risks of driving.

    Related: How Technology Like Navdy is Making Rideshare Driving Safer and Easier

    So Just How Many Accidents are There?

    On August 25, 2016, the New York Post ran a story titled “With more ride-sharing apps, car crashes are skyrocketing”, in which they presented data suggesting accidents involving Uber/Lyft in New York City are alarmingly high.  Here’s part of that article that is especially concerning,

    As the number of people using for-hire car services like Uber has increased in New York, so, too, has the number of accidents … Since January, black cars have been involved in a total of 9,062 crashes, which is 4,273 more than what was recorded during the same time span in 2015. They added that the data not only encompasses the number of drivers who may have had a causal role in a crash, but also ones who were either victims or innocent participants.”

    Think about this for a moment.  If we extrapolate this data for a year, from the 8 months of the sample, and then divide by 12, we’re talking about over 1,000 accidents a month in New York City alone on these platforms.  That’s over 30 accidents a day involving Black Car drivers … in New York City alone.  

    What About Female Drivers? 

    The rating system complicates safety issues for a woman.  To maintain a satisfactory rating of 4.6 or better, the driver must be friendly to passengers. Such pleasantries can be easily misconstrued by a male passenger, especially if that passenger is drunk, stoned or otherwise in a compromised state.

    If a male passenger makes an advance to a woman driver, with words or action, the woman driver is in a bind.  If she rebuffs the advances, then she risks backlash in the form of a low rating.  If she plays along, it can send the wrong signals to the passenger.  In some ways this seems like a no win situation for women drivers, yet most women drivers are able to negotiate these complexities and maintain a good rating (females report having a 4.86 average rating compared to 4.85 for males). Still, it can be a balancing act since women often have to deal with trickier situations.

    According to Forbes’ Ellen Huet, “Why aren’t there more female Uber and Lyft drivers”, only 14% of U.S. Uber drivers are women. Huet quotes, “this economic opportunity has excluded women — not purposefully, but women have self-selected out of it,” said Nick Allen, a cofounder and former CFO of Sidecar who left to start Shuddle, a ride service for children. “And the number one reason they do that is the perception of safety or lack thereof. You hear the horror stories of a drunk guy being forward or not respecting the boundaries of the relationship,” Allen added. “You have to go with the flow, trust that everything is going to be okay. It’s instantly not something that appeals to most women.”

    Related: What’s it like to be a female rideshare driver with Tiffany Hudson-Stroup?

    Uber’s Availability

    Uber’s website says, “always available, 24/7 – Like the cities we operate in, Uber is always on. And that counts extra in times of emergency, when getting a reliable ride to a safe destination is most vital. We also work with the American Red Cross to help the communities we serve during natural disasters.”  Notice they give no emergency number. Uber only recently activated an emergency line, but the number is very difficult to find. Uber no longer provides email support. If something happens, it can get very frustrating trying to find a responsive and sympathetic ear inside the company.

    On driver message boards, drivers often seek advice to what to do in the event of an accident.  Uber provides no guidance on this, nor do they provide driver safety training.  Uber says they can’t because that would comprise their legal stance that drivers are independent contractors.

    What are the Possible Driver Precautions?

    Use a Dashcam: There aren’t a lot of things a driver (or passenger) can do to insure safety 24/7. But one thing is clear: if something does happen, there are going to be claims (and possibly lawsuits) filed. In that case, you’re going to need evidence to support your point of view.  In these situations, a dashcam can help.

    Having a dashcam can also greatly reduce the chances of unruly or violent passenger behavior.  When a passenger sees a camera, they’re immediately on their best behavior (or at least they should be!).  They know that anything they do or say can now be documented, should a dispute with Uber or a potential lawsuit surface.

    Related: Epic Dashcam review

    To Carry or Not To Carry?  Should you carry weapons or pepper spray for protection? That’s your decision. If you do, you could be violating Uber’s Terms of Service. Is this fair? That’s up to you.

    Related: Should Uber Drivers be allowed to carry concealed weapons? 

    The Best Advice: While nothing can insure you 100% against something bad happening as a driver or passenger, you can greatly diminish the chances by treating everyone with respect.  This response on Quora from Alex Dronick, an Uber driver, sums it up best: “yes, it is dangerous to be an Uber driver… I use a lot of mental deterrents to safeguard against things [like] violence and robbery. First thing is make friends with each passenger. They are less likely to harm you if they like you. I don’t keep much cash, credit cards (just one reloadable prepaid), jewelry or anything [too] flashy in the car. I have a police scanner app on my phone. I also have a few crime mapping apps that report [stats] on crimes within different cities and neighborhoods. So yes, it is dangerous but with diligence and awareness you can make it safer for yourself.”

    Readers, what do you think about the safety of Uber and Lyft? Has driving become more or less safe? What concerns you (as a driver and/or as a passenger)?

    -John @ RSG

    👉 Related article: Essential gear every rideshare driver should have

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    John Ince

    John Ince

    John Ince is a former Fortune reporter and Wall Street banker. He has about 1,000 rides under his belt driving part time for Uber and Lyft.  He’s writing a book about his experiences entitled:  Travels With Vanessa:  A Rideshare Driver Tries To Make Sense of It all - For a sneak peak visit the link above.